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Stretch into sleep

Who doesn't love a good stretch? And who doesn't love a good sleep!? Stretching and sleeping goes hand in hand in my book; it should be as important as toothbrushing at night. A good stretch helps you down-regulate and put your day behind you, encouraging a deep, restful and restorative sleep. We are often rushing around in the evenings, or we end up having a late dinner - both of which does anything but encourage going to sleep. If you get caught up with work emails, tidying up the house or get into the time warp that is Insta-scrolling before bed, it is hard to switch off. Instead, plan 5-10 minutes on your mat to slow down and you will quickly reap the benefits of a better night's sleep!

What happens when we sleep

It's called beauty sleep for a reason. Our cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems resets overnight - sleeps helps restore all core bodily functions, cells are renewed and toxins are flushed out from the brain. Sleep allows our digestive system to repair the gut lining and the state of your gut microbiome is shown to have a direct correlation on your sleep quality, i.e. a healthier microbiome means better sleep. Our hormones - that are all at play to make the aforementioned systems work as they should - work in sync with our circadian rhythm, so it's no wonder then that sleep disturbances create havoc with our metabolism, which in turn increases risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hormonal imbalances and heart issues.

Sleep and cortisol

Cortisol and melatonin (the hormones that promotes sleep) work together, by lowering one and increasing another with your circadian rhythm. Cortisol levels gradually increase to wake you up in the morning, melatonin gradually increase to promote sleep at night. Who hasn't been tossing and turning unable to sleep? Chances are these two hormones are out of sync - usually too much cortisol is to blame, which is not only caused by stress, but a diet high in refined sugar, refined grains and saturated fat can also elevate cortisol levels. Do what you can to naturally increase melatonin production - limit screen time and dim your lights, eat foods rich in melatonin and tryptophan (nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, milk) and foods that promote a healthy gut microbiome. Think about when you eat your last meal before bed. If we have dinner too close to bedtime, your digestive system is still hard at work and not ready for 'rest & digest', particularly if it's a big meal. If you have dinner (2-)3 hours before going to bed, your digestion has sufficient time to work, though a light bedtime snack is fine, particularly if this includes foods or drinks that promote sleep, rather than negatively impacts your trip to the land of Nod. Getting natural day light first thing in the morning, as well as exercise and fresh air throughout the day, is also beneficial for promoting sleep and keeping cortisol at a healthy level.

Sleep and menopause

Melatonin naturally decline with age, and it's not clear if female hormones further impacts melatonin production. Regardless, sleep disturbances are common in peri-menopause due to fluctuating oestrogen/progesterone levels, both of which impacts sleep quality. Night sweats are also common reasons for disrupted sleep. Lack of sleep increases anxiety and risk of depression, both of which in turn negatively affects sleep, causing an increase in reported mood disorders among women at midlife. So it is absolutely vital for women in peri/post-menopause years to consider how their diet and lifestyle impacts their sleep - alcohol and caffeine, stress and simply taking on too much are common culprits that needs to be addressed. And DO NOT hesitate to speak to a doctor about HRT. From my point of view I would recommend going to a private practitioner specialising in women's health and menopause if this is a viable option for you. I would highly recommend Mayoni Clinic (online/SE London), who is highly experienced and offer BHRT (bio-identical hormone therapy), which is individually tailored to your hormone profile.

Benefits of stretching before sleep

If there is one thing you should add to your bedtime routine, I would highly recommend gentle stretching. Alongside of conscious breathing, stretching encourages serotonin production, the feel-good hormone that lowers stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. Stretching improves blood circulation, which helps bring nutrients and hormones to where they are needed, eases aches and pains, clears your mind and enhances your mood, all of which encourages a restful sleep. Gentle, mindful movements and deep breathing through the nose activates your parasympathetic nervous system, the 'rest & digest' functions that encourages sleep, promotes relaxation and alleviates stress.

Bedtime stretches

You only need 5 minutes, you can even do many of these stretches in bed if you prefer! Here are my go-to stretches for a good night's sleep.

Deep breathing

Lie on your back with knees bent. Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and feel your lateral ribs, tummy and chest expand. Slow your breath and try to breathe in for a count of up to 6, making sure your exhale is longer than your inhale, up to 8 (e.g. in for 6, out for 8).

A longer exhale activates the vagus nerve and promotes relaxation.

Knees to chest (apanasana)

Lie on your back and draw one or both knees into chest for a low back stretch. This pose has similar benefits as child's pose and is encouraged for those with low back pain.

Child's Pose (balasana)

From all fours, move your knees out to the side and sit back towards your heels. Arms can be stretched forward or down by your side. You can also lean over a few pillows for comfort. Take deep breaths in as above, encouraging your breath towards your back ribs. This is a great pose for opening hips, lengthening spine and aid digestion.

Cat Cow (Marjaryasana Bitilasana)

In all fours, round your back as you breathe out, pushing the floor away, activating core and pelvic floor as you do so. Breathe in to arch down and look up, whilst relaxing core and pelvic floor muscles. Cat cows are great for releasing stiffness and tension in the spine, hips and neck, and is also useful for connecting with and engaging pelvic floor muscles.

Thread the needle (Parsva Balasana)

I may not be getting ready for bed in this video, but this is a great stretch for relieving tension in the mid/upper back and shoulders. It also helps with digestion, opens your shoulders and hips. In all fours, reach one arm up towards the ceiling and reach underneath your chest towards the opposite side for a good spinal twist. You can make it a deeper twist by pushing your opposite hand into the floor, or reaching the opposite hand up towards the ceiling.

Further reading/references:

How waste gets 'washed out' of our brains during sleep:

The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism:

Beneficial Effects of Yoga Stretching on Salivary Stress Hormones and Parasympathetic Nerve Activity


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